Margin Call: How Do We Choose?

Snowflakes are very small. Under certain conditions, their cumulative weight starts an avalanche. This is also true of our decisions in the workplace.

Margin Call has a wonderful cast, great acting, suspenseful story — and music that seems like a character itself.   Thumbs up.

With a takeaway that can form and inform thinking about our workplaces, it fits the bill for one of my Movies About Work.

Margin Call gives us 36 critical hours in a financial institution that might just blow up.

We meet a group of bankers at a moment of truth.   Having profitably sold securities based on a proprietary financial model, we see them as they discover their model to be invalid.

Past decisions approaching avalanche strength now threaten to take down the financial markets.

The bankers face the classic challenge:  when there are no good choices, how do we act?

Margin Call gives us the bank’s entire food chain, from front line analyst to the board chairman, contending with the crisis.  (A member of the cleaning crew also makes a memorable cameo.)

They’ve got to act, even though there’s no viable solution that preserves the bank’s financial standing and reputation.

Also lacking?   A central mission that could guide their decision.   Some characters grasp for a greater good, even allegiance to their firm.  Yet the foundation is not there, and individual motivation becomes the default.

It’s hard to pin down a villain.

Margin Call is about a banking crisis.   The story is universal.   Consider the mining, consumer pharmaceuticals, and energy industries.  Some of these situations ended well.

Others, not so much.  If you’re not squeamish, check the FDA recall list.  These stories unfold every day, in every type of institution:  don’t forget the church.

The film opened last week to positive reviews.  The opening night crowd at Lincoln Center burst into applause as the credits rolled.

Director J.C. Chandor spoke afterwards, with a couple of notable takeaways.

He chose to set his first feature film in a financial institution partly because he grew up with the culture; his father was a banker, and Chandor knew the language.  There was also a budget constraint:  it would have been more costly to research an unfamiliar culture and get it right.

(Indeed, not many films catch the nuances of today’s corporate life so well.  A lay-off scene unfolded with such painful truth that it played almost as comedy.)

Another financial challenge:  he met with pressure from potential partners/backers to change the story line.   Spoiler alert:  you won’t see the bank’s Chief Risk Officer (played by Demi Moore) making out with any of the other characters.

This really goes back to the moral of the story, so to speak.   Integrity means staying true to your story, regardless of the financial implications.  (Thank you J.C. Chandor, for a believable portrayal of a woman in today’s executive suite.)

Mission is a story.  As leaders, it’s our job to see that it’s a story that is told often, told truthfully, and told in a way that our people can use to create meaningful and coordinated action.

This is a leader’s imperative.  You can look to history to see what happens when leaders don’t step up.  Or you can check today’s paper.

Wall Street, New York by dflorian1980, used under Creative Commons License.

The Five Tool Employee

Disclosure: I’m not a baseball fan. I am a Michael Lewis fan who was enchanted by Moneyball. My opening weekend review: thumbs up.

Moneyball tells the story of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, who worked with quant jocks to uncover and trade on inefficiencies in the market for baseball talent. Richer teams acquired talent Beane couldn’t afford: he decided to identify and acquire players whose performance wasn’t valued in the market.

The book beats the film in many ways, including its rich portrayal of amateurs who worked outside the baseball system to develop sabermetrics, quantitative analyses of player performance.

The word amateur is from the Latin amator, or lover. Lewis describes the men who developed these techniques, and their labor of love, in a way that feels like love itself. The movie, not so much. But I digress.

The film portrays Beane and his small inner circle as they swim upstream to disprove conventional wisdom about what wins ballgames.

When Beane’s scouts assemble to discuss prospects, they’re evaluating players based on “five tools”, statistics on hitting, power, speed, throwing and fielding.

You also glimpse qualitative evaluation points – good body, good face. Does the guy look right? Does he feel right? Does he lack confidence, as evidenced by his ugly girlfriend?

The film’s point comes early on: the mainstream has misidentified the problem, and isn’t asking questions that will lead to a solution.

Sometimes I hear, “Sometimes you just hire someone who’s a bad fit.” Maybe. I believe this happens less frequently when you approach the hiring process with rigor, and ask the right questions.

Moneyball gives us Beane’s own early career as a five-tool player. He gives up a Stanford scholarship to pursue a career in pro ball that fails to pan out. As a player, he turns out to be the perfect hire who just doesn’t work out.

Just like “ugly girlfriend,” we have false signifiers in the workplace – the right school, major or degree, GPA. Age, gender, and appearance find their way into the picture. Employment status is another.

Early in my career, I had a candidate for a critical position.   The managers who reported to me liked someone else.  Both were superstars.   It was a Billy Beane moment.

I drafted a matrix of the skills and attributes we were looking for – our own five tools, though if I recall correctly, it was more like ten.   My team and I agreed on these “metrics”, and we designed our interview questions accordingly.  After the interviews, we all compared notes and each assigned a numeric score to each candidate.

Based on our aggregate score, we hired the candidate my managers had backed.  She was terrific, and did a great job for us.

Since then, I’ve consistently used this sort of “algorithmic” analysis to hire people. Successfully. Clients pay me to help them learn how to do this, too.

Billy Beane hasn’t won the World Series. Once he started showing stellar results, competitors started to play the game his way. More teams began to identify and go after the same desirable players. The market became more efficient.

Billy Beane hires from a small pool: life’s playing field is vast.

There’s a universe of people in our workforce who are metaphorically equivalent to Billy’s undervalued players. People who have been away from the workforce.  Those who made creative career choices and now have “interesting” resumes. Career changers. The long-term unemployed.

Angel investor group Golden Seeds bets on women-led early stage businesses. You can bet they’re playing Moneyball.   Is there an angel group out there investing in companies led by military veterans?   I’d bet on that one in a heartbeat.

It’s knowing what’s really important, and making sure you ask for it. Just like Billy Beane.

Baseball by theseanster93, used under Creative Commons License.